In a rare and blunt criticism of education in the nation’s capital, President Obama on Monday called D.C. Public Schools a “struggling” system that doesn’t measure up to the needs of first daughters Sasha and Malia.
The president’s remarks came one day after Education Secretary Arne Duncan also got publicly involved in matters related to D.C. schools, stating his latest praise for embattled D.C. schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee.
However, he also implicitly backed a principal criticism of Ms. Rhee pushed by backers of D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, almost certain to be the city’s next mayor. His remarks also prompted a D.C. school board member to tell him to “butt out” of managing local schools.
During his interview Monday on NBC’s “Today” show, Mr. Obama was asked by a viewer whether his girls “would get the same high-quality, rigorous education in a D.C. public school as compared” with what they receive at Sidwell Friends, a private school in the city.
Mr. Obama replied, “The answer is ‘no’ right now. The D.C. public school systems are struggling,” though “they have made some important strides over the last several years to move in the right direction of reform.”
The Obama administration has praised Ms. Rhee and the kinds of school reforms she championed — expanding charter schools, firing underperforming teachers and acting against the interests of teachers unions.
In an interview Sunday on “Meet the Press,” Mr. Duncan touted Ms. Rhee’s reforms and the leadership of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, who picked her but who lost this month’s Democratic mayoral primary in a race where Gray backers frequently attacked Mr. Fenty over her reforms and management style.
“I’m a huge fan of what [Mr. Fenty] and Michelle have done,” Mr. Duncan said. “By any measure, the public schools in D.C. are dramatically better today than when they started. I stood with Mayor Fenty multiple times. I invested $75 million in the district because of its leadership, and he can walk out with his head held high.”
Since the Sept. 14 Democratic mayoral primary in the District, Mr. Duncan has said the chancellor should be retained. And having spoken with Mr. Gray, he said he is confident that, should Mr. Gray win in November as expected in the overwhelmingly Democratic city, the road map to reform would remain in place.
School board member Mary Lord, who represents the Obamas and ten of thousands of other families who live in Ward 2, said she understands why the first family chose a private school for their girls.
But she bluntly said Mr. Duncan needs to understand that city schools are headed in the right direction and do not need the education secretary running their business and weighing in on the chancellor.
“Memo to Secretary Duncan: If you would like to move to the District of Columbia, pay taxes and vote, you’re welcome,” Ms. Lord said. “Otherwise, butt out of our local politics and certainly do not make or perpetuate the impression that ‘Race to the Top’ is all about Michelle Rhee.”
In her appearance Sunday with Mr. Duncan and former D.C. school board President Robert Bobb, the emergency financial manager of Detroit schools, Ms. Rhee repeated what she has said on numerous occasions since Mr. Fenty’s defeat — that her personal fate remains undecided, but that making “tough decisions” is what leads to progress in education.
Those gains include a teacher-evaluation policy that ties in student achievement, a groundbreaking union deal that includes merit pay, and working with the schools superintendent to win $75 million in federal Race to the Top funds. She also closed schools and fired hundreds of teachers and other school personnel who didn’t measure up.